High-Rises: 'Real Life' PUBLIC HOUSING

February 07, 1993|By MELODY SIMMONS

As he toured the blighted Lexington Terrace public housing complex on Wednesday, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros apologized to an aide for the unscheduled visit that added one extra hour to a tight schedule.

"That's OK," said Mike Janis, HUD's head of Public and Indian Housing. "This is real. This is real life."

Minutes later, Mr. Cisneros and his entourage saw mounds of trash and were sprinkled by an unidentified liquid that steadily leaked down a stairwell as they walked through a high-rise. They peeked inside vacant, vandalized apartments and saw bullet holes and exposed wires. Soon, young mothers appeared to give testimony about how their children have no place to play except in dangerous hallways. Maintenance workers told Mr. Cisneros they often are afraid to work because of the heavy drug dealing.

Aghast, Mr. Cisneros and Mr. Janis sought advice from resident Lorraine Ledbetter as they left the building. Specifically, they wanted to know if Ms. Lebetter thought the run-down high-rises should be razed so housing officials can start again.

"I think all of these places should be gutted and renovated," Ms. Ledbetter replied. "After all, we've got homeless, handicapped people and elderly who need a place to live. We can't afford to lose these buildings. I think the sense of community can be restored if the tenants are allowed participate and there is screening of the residents."

If Mr. Cisneros had toured another Lexington Terrace high-rise, he would have seen a different world. There, at 755 W. Lexington St., residents say they have pressured drug dealers to move their business off the premises, scrubbed away graffiti and promoted a cleaner, healthier environment.

That building has been recognized by some city officials as a model for tenant-housing authority partnership, a ray of hope in today's high-rise public housing projects that have been deemed unsuitable for family living since 1968 when construction of new family high-rises was halted by the federal government.

At Lexington Terrace and throughout the city's high-rise complexes, vacancies are rampant. The average vacancy rate is 18 percent, and at some developments, one in four units are unoccupied. This comes at a time when the city's waiting list for public housing totals more than 26,800 families -- some of them desperate for housing, yet turning down offers to live in the crime-plagued high-rises, housing authority officials say.

Last month, Robert W. Hearn, executive director of the city housing authority, released a plan to abandon the high-rise that Mr. Cisneros toured and move its 69 families to another $l Lexington Terrace tower. That plan was quickly vetoed by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke after the residents revolted over having to move into another high-rise. Furthermore, Mr. Schmoke apologized to the residents for the shoddy condition of the deteriorating high-rise. He spent eight hours touring the decrepit complex -- trudging up 11 flights of stairs in the bitter cold to hear stories of woe from residents. The mayor's visit was preceded by a highly publicized overnight visit to the complex by City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke.

The now-notorious 734 building is still going to be vacated, but not abandoned. Mr. Schmoke said last week it will receive a $2.5 million face-lift. Future plans for the building are incomplete, but city officials would like to convert the building to an adult-only residence.

Other local public high-rise problems still persist.

Crime has forced housing authority officials to place steel

turnstiles in the front entryways, but the devices are detested by the residents who complain the turnstiles make them feel like cattle. Drugs and other crime have prompted sweeps by housing authority police through the vacant units. Poorly lighted hallways and elevators that do not work constantly haunt residents -- most of them women who fear for their safety.

Two years ago, a housing task force appointed by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke concluded that most of the city's 18 high-rises should be torn down. The panel announced a proposal to move 2,000 families out of the high-rise buildings into safer, low-rise apartments of their choice.

Enter reality.

Long after the task force's report was filed away at City Hall, the costly and ambitious demolition plan for the city's public housing towers is only a fragment closer to happening.

This year, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City will apply for $50 million in federal funds to raze only one high-rise complex -- Lafayette Courts in East Baltimore. If awarded the grant, part of a $300 million Hope VI public housing program, the housing authority will kick off a six-year project that will ultimately allow Lafayette Courts tenants to live in modern rowhouses at the site near the main Post Office downtown.

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